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America’s Russia Policy – Why a “Reset” Was Needed and Where It Stands

In March 2009, in the first months of the Obama administration, then-fledgling US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally met for the first time with Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s highly experienced and articulate Foreign Minister.

November 5, 2013 - Tom Yeager - Articles and Commentary



One of candidate Barack Obama’s themes in his run for the Presidency had been that US-Russian dialogue had worsened under George W. Bush and needed repair. His administration’s new strategy, pushed by current US envoy to the Kremlin Michael McFaul (the campaign’s Russia advisor in 2008 and subsequently Director for Russia at the NSC), was to accept that the countries would have periodic serious disagreements, but to delink them from the overall relationship and focus on progress in areas of mutual interest and benefit. This nod in the direction of Henry Kissinger’s Realpolitik, it was hoped, would “reset” bilateral ties and forge a warmer and more mature dialogue between the two sides.

In a small piece of theatre aimed at getting the point across to journalists assembled in Geneva, Clinton offered Lavrov a large red button, imprinted with what she thought was the word reset in Russian and English. Unfortunately, the word printed in Russian was “peregruzka,” more aptly translated as overload than reset. Both Clinton and Lavrov joked about the mistake. Nearly five years on, though, it seems prophetic.

The US and Russia have maintained a turbulent and often chilly relationship since the early 20th century, with brief thaws during the Second World War and after the fall of communism quickly succumbing to renewed struggles for influence between the political systems or internal politics. While today’s Russia is not a military superpower to the extent of the former Soviet Union, it maintains powerful nuclear and conventional forces, and is capable of exerting considerable economic and political pressure both in its near neighbourhood and further afield. At the end of 2008, relations were indeed at a low point, with Russian forces having invaded Georgia in August of that year (their first major foreign intervention since Afghanistan in 1979), its scientists providing assistance to Iran’s nuclear program – with potential sales of Russian anti-aircraft missiles to protect reactor sites, the US imposing wide-ranging sanctions on Russian aerospace and defence firms, and increasing Russian threats of countermeasures to US plans to place an anti-ballistic missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The two countries also had broad mutual interests, though, related to economic cooperation and international security, together with scientific, cultural and humanitarian concerns. These interests included further nuclear stockpile reductions and increasing the security of nuclear materials, preventing proliferation of other weapons of mass destruction, removing trade barriers to increase economic activity, maintaining regional security – especially with respect to Islamic extremism, working towards a Middle East settlement and preventing North Korean brinksmanship from escalating into war. While stumbling from time to time, the reset or de-linkage did seem to achieve some positive results initially, with progress particularly in the economic and security spheres.

At this juncture, in mid-October 2013, the relationship seems at another low point. Over a rocky past year the Kremlin expelled the US Agency for International Development (some alleging that it was because USAID programs encourage civil society and human rights), Congress imposed economic and travel sanctions on some members of Moscow’s leadership under the Magnitsky Act (named for murdered Russian human rights lawyer Sergey Magnitsky), Russia banned adoptions by US citizens, Obama cancelled a scheduled summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin after Moscow granted asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, and Putin accused now-Secretary of State John Kerry of being a liar over comments on Syria.

Despite these tensions, the relationship continues to move forward on other issues. The United States eventually worked with Russia (and China) to approve UN Security Council Resolution 2118 and a framework agreement in the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), intended to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons program, Congress approved normalisation of economic and trade ties with Moscow, there is continued cooperation on regional security and anti-terrorism initiatives, and on 7 October, Secretary Kerry and FM Lavrov signed an agreement upgrading the countries’ Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers. Thus, while high-profile spats, some serious, continue to dominate the headlines, there seems to be no current risk that the bilateral relationship will rupture, as both countries recognise that too much is at stake.

US and Russian views of the bilateral relationship

Nearly five years into the “reset,” it’s clear that US-Russian bilateral ties can’t be improved at the touch of a button, and that external events and internal politics in both countries will always exert considerable pressure on the relationship – for better or worse. As former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates put it, “There’s this cycle of initial enthusiasm and hope that gives way to reality.” Much of the tension between Moscow and Washington comes from their different views on what constitutes an appropriate subject for discussion and how diplomacy is approached. After some broad cooperation in the Clinton presidency and the early years of the last decade, Moscow under Vladimir Putin seems to have returned to the Soviet concept of crisis diplomacy as a zero-sum game. A US “win” is viewed as a defeat for Russian influence. Thus, considerable effort was expended by Moscow to claim credit for “resolving” the Syrian chemical weapons crisis through its leadership, even though the US and other members and non-members of the Security Council and OPCW were – and continue to be – equally essential for a successful result.

Russia also has a distinctly different view of dynamics in the Middle East and its periphery. In light of its own potential vulnerability to militant Islam, it appears to prefer authoritarian regimes which control dissent and opposes support for unpredictable popular change. In addition, it sees many of these countries – including Syria and Iran – as potential clients for significant purchases of Russian military equipment. Syria’s Assad regime also provides Moscow its only Mediterranean naval base and repair facility at Tartus, and Russia’s Navy recently announced it is increasing the size of it Mediterranean fleet to 10 ships, the most it has had in the region since the end of the Cold War. It is thus of critical importance to the Kremlin to maintain the legitimacy of the Assad regime which, paradoxically, it partially achieved by making the regime responsible for cooperating with UN and OPCW personnel in the destruction of its own chemical weapons.

Within Russia, the Kremlin generally rejects the use of programs or assistance by the US and others to “interfere” in what it views its own internal matters: human rights, encouraging civil society and democracy, and increasing transparency, among others. Since this is directly at odds with the US (and EU) approach to international relations, it will inevitably continue to be a source of conflict. It also offers Putin an opportunity to play to his domestic political constituency by retaliating against US interference by, e.g., giving USAID the boot or offering Edward Snowden a Russian passport. Moscow also sees formal security and economic relationships with its neighbours as a “no go” area, continuing to see them as buffer zones protecting the Russian homeland and purely within its sphere of interest.

Comparing US and EU policy objectives in the Russia relationship

European Union members share many of the same goals vis-à-vis Russia and other non-EU eastern European states: a stable security environment in Europe’s eastern neighbourhood, secure supplies of oil and gas which are not subject to political blackmail, a reduction of trade barriers in the economic relationship, increased transparency, and a broader recognition and protection for human rights – particularly in the protection of minority groups.

The EU’s Eastern Partnership seeks to achieve many of these goals through strengthening those states relations with the Union. It does not, however, include Russia. Putin, in fact, clearly sees the Eastern Partnership as competition for influence in his zero-sum worldview. As a result, while the EU has been encouraging Partnership states to enter Deep and Comprehensive Full Trade Areas as a prelude to possible Association Agreements, Moscow has heavily and sometimes menacingly pushed membership in Russia’s Customs Union, which is incompatible with the DCFTAs. The Kremlin also continues to use energy supply as political pressure where possible, though lower energy prices and increase worldwide supply have decreased the effectiveness of this strategy and exposed a possible Russian vulnerability in its dependence on European markets.

The United States has generally avoided any appearance of interference in relations between the EU and its Eastern neighbours, including Russia. US positions on issues affecting those countries are routinely communicated both to the EU and bilaterally to member governments. While achievement of these policy goals is tracked closely by the State Department, the US is generally indifferent to how progress occurs. Thus, while senior State Department officials may occasionally be publicly supportive of EaP, the focus remains on policy goals, and not on building or investing political capital in the EaP mechanism. Having spent more than a decade offering political and financial assistance to EU expansion candidates to help achieve a “Europe whole and free,” Washington now hopes that Brussels will accept the leading role – and related expenses – in securing its own neighbourhoods.

While the US attitude is understandable, this may be a strategic error. As an analogy, the Partnership for Peace (PfP) in NATO provides a mechanism through which non-NATO countries can associate themselves with the Alliances’ members and build cooperation and confidence, whether or not they are ever likely to become NATO members. EaP offers a similar platform for its member nations to interact with the EU Member States, facilitating precisely the type of democratic, economic and human rights objectives which comprise US policy in the region.

Of course, the US is NATO’s preeminent member, with substantial control over the PfP program, while it has no direct input into EaP. Nevertheless, while remaining engaged in other arenas, such as OSCE, more interest in and closer cooperation with the EU on EaP could produce tangible progress on mutual goals. Realistically, if this is to happen, EaP champions in the EU will need to make the case to Washington. Poland, in particular, has both the credibility on eastern European issues and the strong military and political relationship with the US needed to bring the matter to the discussion table.

Considerations for Poland and other Central and Eastern European states

In Poland, two issues of particular importance are guaranteeing its territorial and regional security and broadening economic relationships both with Russia and neighbouring states. While the “reset” attempt effectively killed Bush Administration plans to create a permanent missile defence shield in Poland (though a modified system is expected to be fielded by 2018), the strong US-Polish relationship weathered this blow and emerged with a probably equally effective tripwire for Polish security: a NATO training facility in Bydgoszcz (Joint Force Training Centre) and a US national cadre supporting deployment of US Air Force F-16 and C-130 aircraft in Łask.

There are also a number of historical issues remaining to be resolved under difficult circumstances. On the subject of Katyń-Smoleńsk (which has now become in the public’s mind a merged issue) particularly, the Kremlin seems more than willing to exacerbate internal Polish political conflicts in order to weaken Poland’s credibility with its eastern neighbours. While the Katyń-Smoleńsk controversy does not directly impact to the United States, any damage to the EU’s plans to create closer associations with these countries would be a concern.

The way forward

A key lesson to take from the last five years is that the “reset,” which is to say a deliberate policy of de-linkage of the various aspects of the US-Russia bilateral relationship, has not worked. While it may be appropriate from time to time to focus on one part of the relationship because of its overriding importance, a general policy of de-linkage has provided neither an overall improved diplomatic climate nor clearly superior tangible results. This is because, as noted above, the bilateral agenda is susceptible – as it always has been – to disruption by external events, or to the countries’ leaders (chiefly, but not exclusively Russia’s) perceived need to make an internal political point.

Moving forward, it is important for the US to identify policy objectives in all fields (security, economic, democracy, human rights) and develop strategies for progressing on these fronts simultaneously. Ideally, this should be done in consultation with organisations like the EU and countries like Poland, with whom the US has shared goals, so that resources and the ability to apply pressure on particular issues can be effectively expanded.

One potential area for cooperation is Russia’s bid to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. While OECD membership relates primarily to the completion of economic checklists, transparency and the rule of law also play a significant role in determining a country’s suitability for membership. One should not be shy in demanding full implementation of these OECD criteria. On security issues, the US, the EU, NATO and the OSCE need to maintain a credibly strong and united front so that the Kremlin accepts that mutual cooperation to resolve regional conflicts and mitigate security threats is preferable to imposing a Russian solution, and that future attempts to do so would have significant political and economic costs, at a minimum.

The US, the EU and Poland have been leaders in expanding security, economic development, self-determination and human rights around the world. And, despite the often-difficult nature of engaging with Russia on these issues, they should continue to be.

Tom Yeager is a Senior Fellow at the Casimir Pulaski Foundation.

This text as original published by the Casimir Pulaski Foundation here.

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